Posts Tagged ‘Willie Mays’

The Dandy Dominican

Sunday, April 30th, 2017

As San Francisco morphed into the headquarters for counterculture, with the intersection of Haight and Ashbury becoming as well known to hippies as that of Hollywood and Vine to fans of show business, Juan Marichal fired fastballs for the Giants, a team transplanted from a ballpark approximately 3,000 miles eastward.  The “Dandy Dominican” constructed a Hall of Fame career, boosted by a lineup of fellow Cooperstown-bound teammates Willie McCovey, Willie Mays, and Orlando Cepeda.

In a Hall of Fame Strat-O-Matic matchup of pre-1960 American Leaguers and post-1960 National Leaguers, Marichal notched nine strikeouts in a  9-5 victory for the senior circuit players.  The lineups were:

Pre-1960 American League

Ty Cobb, LF

Goose Goslin, CF

Hank Greenberg, 1B

Babe Ruth, RF

Home Run Baker, 3B

Charlie Gehringer, 2B

Joe Sewell, SS

Bill Dickey, C

Walter Johnson, P

Post-1960 National League

Lou Brock, LF

Joe Morgan, 2B

Hank Aaron, RF

Willie Mays, CF

Johnny Bench, C

Ernie Banks, SS

Eddie Mathews, 3B

Frank Chance, 1B

Juan Marichal, P

Each team was allowed to have one player from outside the time parameter.  The American League kept within it; the National League used Frank Chance.

Marichal gave up solo home runs to Gehringer and Johnson, respectively, in addition to a Greenberg two-run dinger with Goslin on base, courtesy of a rare error by Mr. Cub.  And the pitcher known as the “Dandy Dominican” helped his own cause, singling in the bottom of the second inning, moving to second when Morgan walked after Brock flied out to right, and scoring on an Aaron double.

On July 19, 1960, Marichal first appeared in a major league game, scoring 12 strikeouts in a two-hit, 2-0 victory; the righty’s initial three games—against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee—contributed as many wins to the Giants’ 79-75 season record.  Milwaukee skipper Charlie Dressen lobbied the umpires during the third inning of the Braves-Giants game, complaining that Marichal broke the rule regarding a pitcher’s position on the mound.  Marichal planted himself on the rubber’s location closest to first base, though he told Curley Grieve of the San Francisco Examiner that umpires had never raised the issue.  “I’m used to that position and I think it helps my curve ball, especially against right-handed hitters,” said Marichcal in Grieve’s article “Marichal Delivery Illegal?”

Dressen wanted Marichal to pitch from the middle of the rubber, insisting after the game that his argument was sound.

Marichal, all of 21 years old in his rookie year, received accolades from teammate—and fellow Dominican—Felipe Alou after the troika of games indicating future greatness:  “Juan used to throw harder.  We played for the same team.  Escogido in the Dominican winter league, and he burned them in.  Every year he learns a little more, he gets a new pitch.  Now he’s more clever with curves and sliders to go with his fast ball.”  Art Rosenbaum of the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Alou in his article “Juan Marichal a Baseball ‘Phee-nom,'” which also encapsulated Marichal’s minor league career in Class D (Midwest League), Class A (Eastern League), and AAA (Pacific Coast League).

Marichal ended his rookie year with a 6-2 record.  Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983, Marichal compiled a 243-142 win-loss record in his 16-year career.  An ignominious mark on an outstanding career occurred when he came to bat in a 1965 contest against the Dodgers, highlighted by Sandy Koufax and Marichal hurling brushback pitches; when Dodgers catcher John Roseboro threw the ball back to Koufax, it came too close for comfort—Marichal claimed it nicked his ear.  Retaliation erupted with Marichal bashing Roseboro’s head with his bat.  Roseboro left the game with several stitches and Marichal received a 10-game suspension, a $1,750 fine, and a settlement of litigation with Roseboro amounting to $7,500.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 7, 2017.

Strat-O-Matic Hall of Fame Game: 19th Century vs. Yankees

Monday, April 24th, 2017

In a Strat-O-Matic Hall of Fame matchup between Post-1960 National Leaguers and Pre-1960 American Leaguers, the senior circuit edged Bob Feller and his cohorts 6-5.  To qualify, a National League player could have played before 1960, as long as he played at least five seasons after.  Hence, the appearances of Willie McCovey and Willie Mays in the lineup, in addition to Warren Spahn relieving Don Sutton.  There was no restriction on pinch hitters or substitutes—players of any era from any league were available.

The lineups were:

Post-1960 Nation League

  • Lou Brock (Left Field)
  • Joe Morgan (Second Base)
  • Willie McCovey (First Base)
  • Willie Mays (Center Field)
  • Mike Schmidt (Third Base
  • Andre Dawson (Right Field)
  • Johnny Bench (Catcher)
  • Ozzie Smith (Shortstop)
  • Don Sutton (Pitcher)

Pre-1960 American League

  • Joe Cronin (Shortstop)
  • Home Run Baker (Third Base)
  • Joe DiMaggio (Center Field)
  • Hank Greenberg (Second Base)
  • Goose Goslin (Left Field)
  • Sam Rice (Right Field)
  • Mickey Cochrane (Catcher)
  • Bob Feller (Pitcher)

Lou Brock, a threat to steal as often as Jack Benny claimed he was 39 years old, led off the game by trekking to first on an error by Joe Cronin.  Then, to nobody’s surprise, he stole second.  The rest of the Cardinal legend’s game was not as productive—three strikeouts and a flyout to DiMaggio.  Ozzie Smith, a fellow Cardinal, also struck out thrice.

Dawson singled in the second inning and Bench drove him in with a two-run home run.  With a hint of the impossible—or, at least, highly improbable—Sutton, who hit no home runs in his career, smacked a solo home run to give the NL a 3-0 lead.

In the bottom of the third inning, the AL squad notched its first run when Feller doubled, went to third on a Cronin grounder to Smith, and scored on Baker’s sacrifice fly to Dawson.

Cronin made it a one-run game when he doubled in the fifth, moved to third on a Baker single, and scored when DiMaggio hit into a 4-6-3 double play.  American League bats continued to hammer at Sutton in the seventh.  Baker walked, then moved to second when Sutton threw out DiMaggio at first on a ground ball.  He continued to third when Greenberg got to first on an error by Brock.  With runners at the corners, Lazzeri singled home Baker and Greenberg went to second; Goslin followed with a double, which scored the Tigers’ slugger.

Down 4-3 going into the top of the eighth, the National League batsmen went to work.  Morgan singled, then McCovey knocked a two-run homer to put his team ahead.  Feller walked Mays, who went to third base when Schmidt tried to stretch a single into a double, but got thrown out.  Dawson’s sacrifice fly to Goslin scored Mays, giving the NL a two-run margin.

Cochrane walked to lead off the bottom of the eighth, Gehrig struck out against Sutton in a pinch-hitting appearance, and Cronin hit into a double play.

Feller kept the National Leaguers at bay in the ninth by striking out Smith, getting pinch hitter Wade Boggs out on a fly ball to DiMaggio, and obtaining a similar result when Brock hit one to Rice.

Baker started the bottom of the ninth by flying out to Mays.  DiMaggio made the score 6-5 when he went yard off pitching substitute Warren Spahn.  But that’s as far as the AL got.  Greenberg grounded to Spahn.  Lazzeri amped up the adrenaline when he singled, but Goslin ended the game with a fly out to Dawson.

McCovey’s knock that put the National League ahead in the top of the eighth inning exemplified the power that sent 521 balls over the fence—including 18 grand slams—in a 22-year career.  Débuting with the San Francisco Giants in 1959, McCovey bashed his first career round tripper on August 2nd against Ron Kline of the Pittsburgh Pirates, compiled a .656 slugging percentage, and a .354 batting average.  He won the 1959 National League Rookie of the Year Award.

The Giants traded McCovey to the Padres for lefty Mike Caldwell after the 1973 season.  Bucky Walter of the San Francisco Examiner quoted Giants president Horace Stoneham regarding his rational for the trade:  “We badly needed a lefthanded pitcher.  Caldwell was very impressive against us last season.”  Walter reported, “The young southpaw started twice against the Giants.  He snuffed them out on five hits, 4-1.  He lost a tough 2-1 decision to Ron Bryant.”

McCovey played 1974, 1975, and part of 1976 for the Padres, finished America’s bicentennial year with the A’s, then moved back to San Francisco, where he ended his career during the 1980 season. Appropriately, McCovey was the hero of his last game, hitting an eighth inning sacrifice fly to put the Giants ahead of the Dodgers 4-3—the boys from San Francisco won the game in the 10th inning.  Final score:  7-4.

Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986, McCovey recounted getting called up to the show from the AAA Phoenix Giants.  In his first major league game, McCovey went 4-for-4 with two triples and two singles.  McCovey’s induction speech draft explained the circumstances, but the excerpt did not make the final draft:  “The next night I’m facing a tough left-hander, Harvey Haddix, of the Pirates,” explained McCovey.  “With the score tied in the bottom of the eighth inning, Mays leads off with a single.  Bill [Rigney] comes storming out of the dugout waving his hands.  So I step out of the batter’s box, and say to myself, ‘Now I know he’s not crazy enough to take me out for a pinch hitter is he?’—So he was, ‘If you be patient and take a couple of pitches that guy at first will steal second for you and you can win the game.’

“So I take the first pitch, strike one, I take the next pitch, and Mays steals second.  The next pitch I single to right, Mays scores the go ahead run and we win the game.”

And so began the career that player that Bob Gibson deemed the “scariest hitter in baseball.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 21, 2016.

What if…

Friday, April 21st, 2017

What if…

Charlie Finley hadn’t broken up the 1970s Oakland A’s dynasty?

Bob Uecker hadn’t appeared in Major League?

there was no Designated Hitter position?

the Mets had never traded Nolan Ryan to the Angels?

Yogi Berra had played for the Brooklyn Dodgers?

George Steinbrenner had never bought the Yankees?

the Dodgers had never moved from Brooklyn?

the Giants had moved to Minneapolis instead of San Francisco?

the Red Sox had never sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees?

Walter O’Malley had never owned the Brooklyn Dodgers?

the Red Sox had integrated in 1949 instead of 1959?

Satchel Paige had pitched against Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and other Hall of Famers in their prime?

Bob Feller and Ted Williams had never lost years to military service in World War II?

Mickey Mantle hadn’t blown out his knee in the 1951 World Series?

Bobby Thomson had struck out against Ralph Branch?

Commissioner William Eckert had never invalidated Tom Seaver’s contract with the Atlanta Braves?

Major League Baseball banned synthetic grass?

the Mets had never traded Tom Seaver to the Reds?

Reggie Jackson had never played for the Yankees?

Thurman Munson hadn’t died in a plane crash?

Mickey Mantle had stayed healthy in the home stretch of 1961?

The Natural had ended the same was as the eponymous novel?

the Indians hadn’t traded Chris Chambliss, Dennis Eckersley, Buddy Bell, and Graig Nettles?

the Braves hadn’t never left Boston for Milwaukee?

the first incarnation of the Washington Senators hadn’t left for Minnesota to become the Twins?

the second incarnation of the Washington Senators hadn’t left for Texas to become the Rangers?

the Seattle Pilots hadn’t left for Milwaukee to become the Brewers?

Jim Bouton hadn’t written Ball Four?

Roger Kahn hadn’t written The Boys of Summer?

Mark Harris hadn’t written Bang the Drum Slowly?

Jackie Robinson had sought a football career instead of a baseball career?

Billy Martin hadn’t managed the Yankees in the late 1970s?

Gil Hodges hadn’t died in 1972, during a high point in the history of the Mets?

Vin Scully had stayed in New York City and announced for the Yankees or the Mets?

Bob Feller had pitched for the Yankees?

Ted Williams had played for the Yankees?

Joe DiMaggio had played for the Red Sox?

Charles Ebbets hadn’t owned the Brooklyn Dodgers?

Honolulu had a Major League Baseball team?

Pete Rose were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame?

the commissioner’s office rescinded the lifetime banishment of the 1919 Black Sox from Major League Baseball?

Hank Aaron had played in the same outfield as Willie Mays?

Wiffle Ball hadn’t been invented?

Nashville had a Major League Baseball team?

Dwight Goodman and Darryl Strawberry had stayed away from drugs?

Roberto Clemente had played for the Dodgers instead of the Pirates?

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 17, 2016.

The Last Eagle

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

Once upon a decade—the one that introduced Elvis Presley, car tail fins, and McDonald’s franchises—a ballplayer blessed with speed, grace, and athleticism rivaling Orsippus’s climbed to the apex of baseball, popular culture, and media.

The year was 1951.  The place was New York City.  The ballplayer was Willie Mays.

Talent alone does not make a major leaguer, however.  Responding to this reality, Leo Durocher, manager of the New York Giants, selected a member of his Polo Grounds posse to shepherd the 20-year-old Mays upon the rookie’s ascension from the Minneapolis Millers—the Giants’ AAA team.

Monford Merrill Irvin.  Monte.

In his 1975 book The Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff, Thomas Kiernan wrote, “Irvin not only accepted responsibility for Mays, he took the move as a challenge.  For the first time as a Giant he had a teammate who, it appeared, was every bit as talented as he was.”

Under Irvin’s tutelage, Mays matured into the professional that Durocher et al. hoped he would be.  “Irvin would instruct Mays on game situations, shout out which bases the rookie should throw to, position against each enemy hitter—to make it easy for Mays to turn what would be extra-base hits with anyone else in center field into outs,” stated Kiernan.

Irvin played in the Negro Leagues before desegregating the New York Giants with Hank Thompson in 1949.  Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles, testified, “Monte was the choice of all Negro National and American League club owners to serve as the No. 1 player to join a white major league team.  We all agreed, in meeting, he was the best qualified by temperament, character ability, sense of loyalty, morals, age, experiences ad physique to represent us as the first black player to enter the white majors since the Walker brothers back in the 1880s.  Of course, Branch Rickey lifted Jackie Robinson out of Negro ball and made him the first, and it turned out just fine.”

Appropriately, Manley’s statement is on Irvin’s Baseball Hall of Fame web site page.

Irvin led the Eagles to the 1946 Negro Leagues World Series championship against the Kansas City Monarchs—a shining moment for the kid from Orange, New Jersey, for whom playing playing baseball was oxygen.

When Irvin died on January 11, 2016, he took with him the status of being the last living monument to the Eagles.  In a statement, Mays said that his mentor “was like a second father to me.”

Jerry Izenberg, an iconic New Jersey sports writer, eulogized Irvin in the Star-Ledger, which gained international recognition when Tony Soprano ambled down his driveway in a robe and slippers to pick it up, often thumbing through the pages for the latest news on mafia arrests.

Decades after his career in the Negro Leagues, Irving maintained joyousness that could light up Chancellor Avenue.  Irvin’s exclamations occurred repeatedly in conversations with Izenberg, who recalled the thread of joy running through them, including an excerpt of a conversation from the early 1990s:  “I played in three countries.  I played in two World Series.  But I never found anything to match the joy and the laughter those years with the Eagles brought me.”

Monte Irvin retired with a .293 batting average after eight seasons in the major leagues; the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted him in 1973.  “I hope my induction will help to ease the pain of all those players who never got a chance to play in the majors,” stated the man largely responsible for the career of Willie Mays.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 9, 2016.

Reggie Hits No. 500

Monday, February 20th, 2017

Reggie Jackson was the King Midas of baseball.  Everything he touched turned to gold.

The Kansas City A’s had a 62-99 record in 1967, Jackson’s rookie season.  But Jackson only played in 35 games.  When he became a starter, the A’s won three World Series championships, never had a losing season, and enjoyed the “dynasty” label.  In 1973, Jackson won the Most Valuable Player Award, an honor duplicated in 1977, during his Yankee tenure.

Jackson left the A’s after the 1975 season, spent a year with the Orioles, then played for the Yankees in a five-year run that resulted in two World Series championships.  In the 1977 World Series, Jackson hit three home runs in one game.  Celebrations in the South Bronx could be heard from Manhattan to Montauk.

When his sting in the South Bronx ended, Jackson landed in Anaheim, where he bid farewell to baseball after the 1987 season.  Jackson reached a milestone in an Angels uniform, smacking his 500th home run on September 17, 1984.  It elevated Jackson into the pantheon of the 500 Club, whose membership to date consisted of Mel Ott, Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews, Willie McCovey, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, and Jimmie Foxx.

Jackson’s dinger contributed the only run in a 10-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals.  There was a circular quality to the moment.  Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times noted that Jackson hit his first major league home run against the Angels and his 500th in Kauffman Stadium, where he played for the Kansas City A’s, long since transported to Oakland.  Additionally, the 500th home run happened on the 17th anniversary of the first time Jackson went yard.

Gerald Scott of the Los Angeles Times quoted Jackson about the pitch:  “I was very, very elated going around the bases.  I said thanks (to myself) to Bud Black because he’d given me a pitch to hit.

“It was a 7-0 (lead) pitch.  It was a ‘room service’ fastball.  I just wish we could’ve been winning.  I wish it could’ve been a seven-run homer.”

Black, a formidable hurler for the Royals, compiled a 17-12 record, 3.12 ERA, and 140 strikeouts in 1984.  Jackson’s home run was one of 22 that Black allowed in the year that saw the débuts of the Huxtable family, a Beverly Hills cop named Axel Foley, and undercover detectives Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs working for the Miami Police Department’s Vice Division.

Jackson had signed with the Angels after Yankee owner George Steinbrenner did not guarantee the slugger a place in the starting lineup as an outfielder.  It is a good bet that the Yankees would have continued Jackson’s recent role as a designated hitter.

Joseph Durso of the New York Times reported on Jackson’s optimism upon closing the the deal with Angels owner Gene Autry.  “I’m very happy to join a club that really seemed to pursue me and wanted me,” said Jackson.  “With the Angels, I get a chance to play.  I guess with everything being equal, the most difficult decision for me was whether to go to Baltimore or California.  Both clubs have really fine people.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 12, 2016.

September, 1965

Saturday, February 11th, 2017

In the ninth month of 1965, baseball fans reveled in the aura of excellence displayed at major league ballparks.

Ernie Banks, the jovial Cubs shortstop, whose trademark suggestion “Let’s play two!” indicates pure delight in playing baseball, knocked his 400th home run.  Appropriately, it happened in Wrigley Field rather than during an away game for Chicago’s beloved Cubbies.

Dave Morehead came within a baseball stitch of pitching a perfect game for the Red Sox.  Rocky Colavito punctured the hopes of Bostonians when he drew a walk in the second inning of an Indians-Red Sox game, which had a measly attendance of 2,370.  A no-hitter remained in sight as Vic Davalillo strode to the batter’s box in the top of the ninth, pinch hitting for Dick Howser.  When Davalillo’s grounder bounced off Morehead’s glove, the no-hitter flirted with jeopardy.

Morehead retrieved the ball, threw to first baseman Lee Thomas, and watched with relief as first baseman Lee Thomas scooped the lowly thrown sphere from the dirt.

Bert Campaneris played all nine positions in a game for the A’s, Willie Mays reached the milestone of 500 home runs, and Mickey Mantle enjoyed a day in his honor to commemorate his 2,000th major league game.

Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game against the Cubs, relying on a scant 1-0 lead—it was the fourth no-hitter for the Dodgers phenom.  In his account, Charles Maher of the Los Angeles Times quoted Koufax:  “You always know when you’ve got a no-hitter going, but you don’t particularly pay any attention to it early in the game.  In the seventh, I really started to feel as though I had a shot at it.

“But I still had only one run to work on.  I still had to win the game.”

Koufax offered compassion to his Cubs counterpart, Bob Hendley.  In his 1966 autobiography Koufax, written with Ed Linn, the legendary hurler wrote, “I sympathized with him only as a fellow pitcher, only in retrospect, and—most of all—only when we were in the locker room with the game safely won.”

In Maher’s report, Koufax said, “It’s a shame Hendley had to get beaten that way.  But I’m glad we got the run or we might have been here all night.”

Vin Scully, the Dodgers announcer for generations since the team’s last days at Ebbets Field, cemented the occasion in his radio broadcast by highlighting the time.  In her 2002 book Sandy Koufax:  A Lefty’s Legacy, Jane Leavy wrote, “Baseball is distinguished by its lack of temporal imperatives.  Nine innings take what they take.  Scully intuitively understood that locating the game in time would attest to its timelessness.  Always, he gave the date.  This time, he decided to give the time on the clock, too, so that Koufax would remember the exact moment he made history.”

In the Midwest, joy enveloped one major league city while wistfulness dominated another one.  The Minnesota Twins—formerly the Washington Senators until the 1961 season—won their first American League title.  Milwaukeeans, meanwhile, said goodbye to the Braves as the team headed to its third major league city—Atlanta.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 24, 2016.

Bill White: Player, Broadcaster, Executive

Saturday, January 21st, 2017

When Bill White hit a home run in his first major league at-bat, he began a journey of solidity that garnered career statistics of 1,706 hits, 202 home runs, and a .286 batting average.  Beginning his career in 1956 with the Giants, White also played for the Cardinals and the Phillies.  Although more than a decade had passed since Jackie Robinson broke the color line, White suffered racism into the early 1960s, along with other black players—and he refused to be silent about it.

In his autobiography Uppity, written with Gordon Dillow, White described an incident in 1961 involving the Cardinals during Spring Training—St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce’s annual “Salute to Baseball” breakfast excluded black players on the Cardinals.

“That was bad enough,” wrote White.  “Then I saw that the list included a couple of rookies who had never swung a bat in the majors.  The idea that the local bigwigs wanted to honor unproven players while ignoring proven players because of the color of their skin rankled me.

“No, it more than rankled me.  Combined with all the other crap that black players had to take, it made me furious.”

White told Joe Reichler of the Associated Press.  Reichler’s story hit newspapers, triggered threats of a black boycott of Cardinals owner Anheuser-Busch, and spurred an invitation to the event at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club; Elston Howard of the Yankees also received an invitation.  White refused.  “I hadn’t wanted to eat with those bigots anyway.  All I had really wanted, what all the black players wanted, was simply the opportunity to say no,” explained White.

For Yankee fans of certain ages, White is fondly remembered as an announcer on WPIX-TV, sparring verbally with Phil Rizzuto, who brought continuity from the Yankee glory years of the 1950s, further reinforced by Yankee icon Billy Martin managing the team.

Rizzuto’s non sequiturs about the best Italian restaurants in New Jersey and other personal items may have seemed goofy, or even annoying, had White not provided the slightly teasing manner necessary to let the viewers know that Phil’s personality ought to be embraced, not endured.  Frank Messer was the third broadcaster in the WPIX triumvirate, a “consummate professional” offering erudition, but not the same synchronicity with Rizzuto that White enjoyed.

“He genuinely liked Phil, and would play around with him on the air, but there was always a light tone of disapproval in it—and I think the listeners picked up on that,” wrote White.

When White took on the responsibility of the National League presidency, he confronted the Pete Rose gambling scandal in his first year.  White held the post from 1989 until 1994, when he resigned.  His hiring took place in the wake of a firestorm created by Al Campanis’s 1987 appearance on Nightline, when the Dodgers executive questioned whether black players “may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager or general manager.”  Further, Campanis opined that black players may not want a position in the front office after they retire from playing.  To some baseball insiders, it was a curious statement; Campanis roomed with Jackie Robinson during his playing days.

The incident ignited action; White became the first black National League president.  Dave Anderson of the New York Times wrote, “But no matter who the other candidates were, Bill White was as qualified as anyone else, and surely much more qualified than most.  If he happened to be the best black candidate at a time when baseball finally understood it needed a black executive, that is as historically important as it was 42 years ago when Jackie Robinson happened to be the best black candidate at a time when baseball finally understood it needed a black player.

“Of all of Bill White’s credentials, the most comforting is that he has been in baseball all his adult life.  He understands baseball and he understands its people.”

Among his many duties, White dealt with player suspensions, minority hiring, and National League expansion.

In his Foreword to Uppity, Willie Mays, a mentor of White, provided insight regarding White’s approach to baseball and life.  “But even as he got older, and his jobs changed, in some ways Bill was always the same as that young player in his first major league game way back in 1956,” wrote the Say Hey Kid.  “He was never loud or flashy about what he did, never thought that he was bigger than whatever team he was playing for or whatever job he had taken on.  He just went out every day and did his best—and he was never afraid to speak out for what he thought was right.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 26, 2016.

Willie Mays Returns to New York

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

On May 25, 1951, Willie Mays played in his first major league game.  19 years and 50 weeks later, Mays returned to the city that embraced his early career.

Entering the major leagues with the New York Giants under the managerial reign of Leo Durocher, Mays became a model of excellence in ability, knowledge, and behavior.  In his 1975 autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last—written with Ed Linn—Durocher wrote, “Every day with Mays I would come to the ball park, pick up the lineup card and write his name in.  Willie Mays was never sick, he was never hurt, he never had a bellyache, he never had a toothache, he never had a headache.  He came to the park every day to put on the uniform and play.”

When the Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season, Willie Mays became a favorite son of the Bay Area, with a metropolitan synonymity as as powerful as cable cars, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Golden Gate Bridge.  In the 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Spencer Tracy jokes that Willie Mays could get elected Mayor of San Francisco.

Mays’s term with the New York/San Francisco Giants brought 12 Gold Gloves, two Most Valuable Player Awards, and 18 All-Star Game appearances.  On May 11, 1971, the Giants and the New York Mets secured a deal that traded Mays to the Mets for Charlie Williams and a reported figure of $100,000.  Willie Mays back in a New York uniform ignited an inferno of nostalgia for the city’s glory days of the 1950s, when three teams ruled Gotham baseball.  In the New York Times, Red Smith acknowledged the questionable value of a trade, given Mays’s subpar batting average (below .200) and age (41).  “It can be justified only on sentimental grounds and if the deal comes off, God bless [Mets majority owner] Joan Payson.  The name-calling and hair-pulling during the players’ strike, the prolonged bitterness over Curt Flood’s challenge to the reserve system, and the corrosive effects of Charley Finley’s haggling with Vida Blue have created a crying need for some honest sentiment in baseball.”

Additionally, Smith noted, Giants owner Horace Stoneham valued Mays, so a trade for the superstar hinged on protecting him.  “Anybody who knows Stoneham knows he would not trade Mays unless he believed it would benefit Willie as well as the Giants.”  Mays, in turn, voiced esteem for his boss during the press conference announcing the trade.  Times reporter Steve Lady recounted Mays’s response when a reporter questioned “The Say Hey Kid” about possible bitterness towards Stoneham:  “Bitterness?  What do you mean?  How could I have any bitterness for this man who is seeing that I’m taken care of after my playing days are over?  A lot of ballplayers play 20 years and come out with nothing.”  Regarding the city that launched his career, Mays said, “When you come back to New York, it’s like coming back to paradise.”

Contrariwise, in his 1988 autobiography Say Hey:  The Autobiography of Willie Mays—written with Lou Sahadi—Mays revealed his initial disappointment.  “My first reaction was anger at Stoneham,” wrote Mays.  “What happened to that family atmosphere he had always spoken of?  I couldn’t accept the fact that he hadn’t called me when he was working out the details.  Later, he explained to me he was losing money and would sell the club soon, but before he did, he wanted to make sure my future was secure.  Whatever feelings I had felt for him over the years, at that moment I felt betrayed.”

Security proved to be a factor in the trade of the aging icon, indeed.  Associated Press reported, “No specific terms of the deal to bring Mays to the Mets were revealed at the Shea Stadium conference but [minority owner and Chairman M. Donald] Grant said part of the package included a job for Mays in the New York organization after he retires as an active player.”  Joseph Durso of the Times reported, “Besides assuming his current salary, the Mets agreed to keep him for at least three years as a coach at $75,000 a year after he quits playing—which presumably could be at the end of this season or next.”

Despite unwarranted statistics, Mays attained selection for and played in the 1972 and 1973 All-Star Games.  Once fleet of foot with speed that struck terror into fielders trying to throw him out, Willie Howard Mays evidenced his age during the 1973 World Series, which the Mets lost to the Oakland A’s in seven games.  Phil Pepe of the New York Daily News wrote, “What you can say is that he looked every bit of his 42 years and had people feeling sorry for him as he floundered around under two fly balls in the sun.  And you can say that he battled back to drive in the go ahead run off Rollie Fingers as the Mets scored four runs and punched out a 10-7 victory over the A’s in game No. 2 here Sunday.”

Mays also ran into problems on the base paths; Mets manager Yogi Berra designated Mays as a pinch runner for Rusty Staub in the top of the ninth inning with the Mets ahead 6-3.  John Milner singled, but Mays “got his legs twisted and sprawled helplessly on the ground making his turn around the bag,” reported UPI.  “Mays should’ve easily made third on the blow but, after his mishap, all he could do was half-crawl, half-fall back safely into second.”

In the 12th inning, Mays knocked in the game-winning RBI; it was appropriate, somehow destined, that “The Say Hey Kid” finished the 12-inning affair with redemption, giving baseball fans a last glimpsed of greatness.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 19, 2015.

Roberto Clemente’s 3000th hit

Monday, December 12th, 2016

When John Fogerty débuted his 1985 hit song Centerfield, he reminded people of the joy inherent in baseball—the video produced for this musical, lyrical, and nostalgic homage to baseball depicts a collage of footage featuring baseball legends, including Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Roy Campanella, Casey Stengel, Ted Williams, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Bob Feller, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra.

Roberto Clemente also appears—his 1956 Topps card opens a montage of baseball cards accompanying the song’s opening riff, which consists of a string of claps in a pattern one might hear in a ballpark’s stands.  The video is timed so that a card appears simultaneously with the sound of each clap.

It’s somehow appropriate that Clemente received the distinction of opening the Centerfield music video.  Overshadowed during his career, perhaps, by his peers—the dazzling flash of Willie ays, the consistent power of Hank Aaron, and the sheer dominance of Mickey Mantle—the Pittsburgh Pirates’ standout outfielder symbolized steadiness.  In turn, Clemente stirred excitement among the Pirate faithful at Forbes Field.

In a career that spanned 1955 to 1972, Clemente had a .317 lifetime batting average—during one 13-year stretch, he notched a batting average above .300 for 12 of those years.  Clemente compiled a .475 lifetime slugging average, won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1966, and reached the magical plateau of 3,000 career hits—exactly.  On December 31, 1972, Clemente died in a plane crash while traveling to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.

His was a voyage of purpose—spearheading relief efforts for Managuans suffering from a recent earthquake.  “He had received reports that some of the food and clothing he had sent earlier had fallen into the hands of profiteers,” explained Cristobal Colon, a Clemente friend, in the article “Clemente, Pirates’ Star, Dies in Crash Of Plane Carrying Aid to Nicaragua,” in the January 2, 1973 edition of the New York Times.  Neither for glory nor publicity, Clemente helped those who could not help themselves.  It was a part of his character, not a springboard for a photo opportunity.

Clemente’s last hit came against Jon Matlack, the 1972 National League Rookie of the Year, in a Mets-Pirates game on September 30, 1972.  Mattock was unaware of the moment’s historic impact, however.  “I had no idea he was sitting on 2,999,” Matlack recalled for Anthony McCarran’s November 29, 2008 article “Where are they now? Ex-Met Jon Matlack can’t stay away from the game” on nydailynews.com.  “I was just trying to win a game.  When I gave up the double—I think it short-hopped the center-field wall—there was all this hoopla.  The ump presents him the ball at second and I’m glowering and thinking, ‘Hey we have a ballgame here.’  I was just an oblivious rookie.  Then I saw it on the scoreboard, that it was his 3,000th hit.”

In the 2006 book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, David Maraniss recounted, “In the excitement of the moment, Don Leppert, the first base coach, took out a package of Mail Pouch chewing tobacco and was about to stuff a wad into his mouth when Clemente came over and gave him the ball.  Leppert stuck the piece of history in his back pocket for safekeeping.”

The Baseball Hall of Fame waived its eligibility rule because of Clemente’s untimely death. A waiting period of five years after retirement had been the rule but the waiver mandated that a player’s eligibility kicks in if the player dies before the five-year waiting period expires or while still active.  In a special election, the Baseball Writers Association of America stamped Clemente’s passport to Cooperstown.

A eulogy appeared in the article “Roberto Clemente, The Great One” in the January 6, 1973 edition of the New Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper dedicated to the Steel City’s black population:  “Life was not always good to him.  He was often maligned.  Many times he was not given the recognition and admiration that was his due.  It took sometime [sic] for his greatness to get through to a reluctant public but eventually it came to the fore, like the knight in shining armour that he was.”

Roberto Clemente was, indeed, a hero for his achievements on the baseball diamond.  He played on 12 All-Star teams, received 11 Gold Gloves, and became an icon to Pittsburgh’s baseball fans.  But his deeds of generosity to those unable to help themselves defined his true heroism.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 31, 2014.

1969

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

As described by German Prussian politician Otto von Bismarck, politics is the art of the possible.  So is baseball.  When the New York Mets defeated the Baltimore Orioles to win the 1969 World Series, possible elevated to miraculous.

Once again, National League baseball thrived in New York City.  It was a long wait, too.  There were only two World Series between 1947 and 1957 that did not have either the Giants or the Dodgers representing the National League.  After the 1957 season, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants departed for Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively.  With fan bases mourning the loss of their teams, the Mets offered an outlet for those who did not want to—or refused to—switch allegiances to the Yankees.  Those fans were used to excellence, however, not mediocrity.  Or worse.

Débuting in 1962, the Mets leapt to new heights in futility; the team’s record was 40-120.  Successive seasons offered no solace:

1962 (40-120)

1963 (51-111)

1964 (53-109)

1965 (50-112)

1966 (66-95)

1967 (61-101)

Rooting for the Mets, in turn, became a pastime requiring emotional endurance.  That changed when Gil Hodges took the managerial reins in 1968.  Though still below .500, the Mets vaulted to a 73-89 record.

Momentum continued in 1969, resulting in a 100-62 record for the so-called Miracle Mets.  Tom Seaver tore through opponents like a flame through a box of Kleenex tissues, ending the season with a 25-7 record, 205 strikeouts, and a 2.21 ERA.  Unsurprisingly, Seaver won the 1969 National League Cy Young Award.  Cleon Jones batted a career-high .340, placing third in the National League, behind Pete Rose and Roberto Clemente.  Jerry Koosman won 17 games, notched 180 strikeouts, and had a 2.28 ERA.

Though impressive, the Mets faced an American League team exploding with dominance—the Orioles ended the 1969 regular season with a 109-53 record, largely a result of phenomenal pitching:

Mike Cuellar (23-11)

Dave McNally (20-7)

Tom Phoebus (14-7)

Jim Palmer (16-4)

Conventional wisdom favored the Orioles.  Conventional wisdom was wrong.  The Mets won the 1969 World Series in five games.

Miracles replaced miseries.

In 1969, the Corleone family first appeared in Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, Led Zeppelin released its first album, Richard Nixon became the 37th President of the United States, Boeing’s 747 airplane made its first flight, Willie Mays became the first baseball player in the major leagues to hit 600 career home runs since Babe Ruth, journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre, Chemical Bank’s Rockville Centre branch unveiled the first Automatic Teller Machine in the United States, Golda Meir became the first—and, to date, only—female Prime Minister of Israel, the New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, Dr. Denton Cooley implanted the first artificial heart, Sullivan County in upstate New York hosted a three-day festival called Woodstock, Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon, and the Montreal Expos earned the distinction of being the first MLB team stationed outside the United States.

1969 was a year of achievement in politics, science, technology, sports, literature, entertainment, and journalism.

For baseball fans, however, 1969 was a year of miracles.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 16, 2014.